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Riffing on Tolkien: The Conceptualization, Production, and Dissemination of Music in The Lord of the Rings

Creating a soundtrack for Vivendi's upcoming LOTR games was an enormous undertaking for Chance Thomas - a saga that Tolkien himself would have appreciated. Here's how he pulled together, with help from the Utah Film Orchestra.

Chance Thomas, Blogger

November 12, 2003

31 Min Read

For Vivendi Universal Games' Lord of the Rings titles, which include Middle-Earth Online, War of the Ring, The Hobbit, and Fellowship of the Ring, the mandate was to create music that would approach Tolkien's idealized descriptions, music that would represent the relentless pursuit of quality evidenced in his books and that would also bind an entire series of games together over time and across multiple developers, composers, and platforms. I'll talk about creating an authentic music style guide for the franchise, producing high-quality music assets, and managing an innovative music implementation system at both the publisher and developer levels.

Hallowed Ground

The Tolkien works are highly esteemed by millions of readers across the globe. For the fantasy genre faithful, the Lord of the Rings series nearly approaches canon. Daring to mingle our own mortal efforts with those of Tolkien was a risky venture and not a quest for the superficially inclined. This music needed to be drawn from the very pen of Tolkien's writings, ringing of truth to anyone familiar with its pages. The only way to avoid flaming out in the fires of Mount Doom was to know the literature completely, inside and out.

Thus it was that, over the course of five years, I logged hundreds of hours researching and annotating Tolkien's books for everything they had to say about music. I found passages describing specific musical instruments used by the various races. I found information about vocal tone qualities and inferred vocal ranges for the races of Dwarves, Hobbits, Elves, Men, and even monsters. I found more than 60 different songs in the books and studied them all, including song forms and styles. It was fascinating to read about the impact of music on characters, traits, and even the environment. As a result, my copies of the literature are dog-eared, underlined, cross-referenced, and yellowing - and not just from the gaggle of Post-It notes protruding from the pages.

From these notes, I created a Tolkien Music Style Guide to offer direction to the many composers who would be working with me on this game series. The style guide defines a specific palette of musical instruments for each race based on actual references in the text. It identifies specific voice types and ranges for each race, also based on references in the text. The underscore for each race is given harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic guidelines inferred from references in the text. In addition, there are sections in the style guide discussing production quality standards, music design matrices, implementation alternatives, music delivery specifications, and much more.

For example, both Elves and Dwarves are known to play the harp. But unlike Elven harps, Dwarven harps are "strung with silver." We represent this in our scores with a rare wire-strung harp, recorded especially for our LOTR series by sample maestro Gary Garritan. As another example, Hobbits' music is voiced by Celtic ensembles, based on the reference that Hobbits play "pipes and flutes." But they also played "horns and trumpets." You'll find them all in our Hobbit tunes. Also, Dwarves are reported to play "clarinets" and "viols as big as themselves," which we have also reflected authentically in our scores.

A quick story from the development of The Hobbit (Christmas 2003, all console platforms) is illustrative. Composers Rod Abernethy and Dave Adams had been creating a wonderful collection of music to underscore Bilbo's adventures in Hobbiton. Almost everything was in complete harmony with the Tolkien Music Style Guide. But one piece of music seemed a little out of character. The arrangement was laced with marimba, a very cool instrument but decidedly out of place. Referencing the style guide I told the composers, "You see, there are no marimbas in The Shire!" There was a brief moment of silence, after which we all broke into laughter. The moment was comical in its self-importance, but the composers did make the change, and our adherence to the style guide successfully preserved a higher degree of authenticity in the score.

Other games served by the Tolkien Music Style Guide include War of the Ring (Christmas 2003, RTS for PC), Middle-Earth Online (Christmas 2004, MMO for PC), The Treason of Isengard (recently cancelled), The Fellowship of the Ring (2002, consoles and PC), and several unannounced titles currently in development for console and PC.


One of the most important recommendations in the Tolkien Music Style Guide was that a series of main themes be written to reflect the essence of each key race in the story - Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits, and the races of evil, represented by Sauron. These main themes would then be used in every LOTR game to lay the thematic underpinning for each game score. The themes would serve as musical landmarks in our games, tying all the scores together with a series of common musical motifs and palettes. The task of composing these main themes fell to me.

I could have written 12 notes and said, "Here's the Dwarves' theme," but in keeping with VUG's vision that the series amount to a "leather-bound edition" quality, I proposed that each racial theme be showcased in an overture telling key parts of the LOTR story in music. Not only would this model the style guide's recommendations in a broad range of potential gameplay situations, but it would also provide a plethora of multiple-utility music assets. These assets include dozens of high-quality music cues to implement directly in each game score, sectional stems (choir, strings, brass, and woodwinds) from the live recording sessions for integration in other composers' scores, MIDI files to start each composer on the right track, and feature-length tracks appropriate for a music CD. To my knowledge, planning such a detailed musical framework in advance for an entire series of games has never been done like this before. VUG approved the main themes as outlined, and we were off to the races.

As an example, let's look at the structure for the Elves' overture. This piece of music comprises several movements that showcase our four main Elven themes. The opening and closing movements, "From Across the Sea" and "Return to the Sea," give us a feel for the immortal, solemn, and sad nature of the Elves. The middle three movements underscore the Elven strongholds in Middle-earth - Rivendell, Lothlórien, and Mirkwood - and reflect what the books tell us about the Elves in each particular region.

The Tolkien Music Style Guide defines the augmented 5th as a harmonic signature for the Elves, and the classical harp as a primary Elven instrument. The entire Elves' overture is built upon these two constants, branching out with variations for each movement in ways that are completely unique and reflective of the various strains of Elvenkind.

In addition, each of the three middle movements shows two variations, which offer additional examples of Style Guide scoring. Thus, the yield from this single five-minute piece of music would be as follows:

  • Eight examples of Style Guide scoring for the race of Elves.

  • Five fully orchestrated PCM music cues for implementation directly in a game score .

  • Dozens of sub-mixed music cues (harp, strings and voice, woodwinds and psaltry, and so on) from each movement for implementation directly in a game score.

  • The source MIDI file for supporting composers to use as a starting point for their own scoring efforts.

  • An adventurous overture for music lovers, which tells much of the Elves' story.
    See the sidebar below to hear some samples.

This project was innovative and efficient music design at a global level. In order to ensure the broadest possible appeal and safeguard against my own potential biases, I composed the five thematic suites in cooperation with our developers, VUG management, and the other Tolkien directors. I sent everyone an MP3 of each draft and invite commentary, and many good suggestions came in. Kristofor Mellroth, an audio engineer at Surreal Software (Treason of Isengard), suggested we use some of the Black Speech in Sauron's theme. Chris Pierson, one of the designers at Turbine Entertainment (Middle-Earth Online), suggested specific lines of Dwarvish for the battle at Helm's Deep. Daniel Greenberg, our creative director, helped steer me toward a better feel for Mirkwood. Even Vijay Lakshman, one of the VPs at VUG, got into the act, suggesting I beef up the drums in the Dwarves' theme. It was a total team effort, and the end result was a collection of compositions we could all feel very good about. Time to move into production.

Producing the Themes

There was never any question in my mind that we would record the themes with as many live components as possible, striving for the highest possible quality standard. We simply had no other choice. Tolkien's conceptualization of music was too idealized. He talks of musical instruments "of perfect make and enchanting tones." He describes singing as "clear jewels of blended word and melody." He refers to "power" in old songs, and even ascribes the ultimate creative power to music from the gods.

In addition, we had to consider the level of quality apparent in Tolkien's writings. Careful attention to detail, painstaking effort in choosing words, great skill in painting verbal images of beauty and artistry, and a tireless thoroughness evidenced in all his books. It was clear that we must hold to the highest possible standards of excellence for our themes. And that meant finding a great orchestra, choir, and ancient acoustic instrumentalists.

There are dozens of orchestras around the world, but only a handful whose musicians have significant experience with film, game, or television scores and whose facilities are suitable for recording. I quickly narrowed my list down to four - The Hollywood Symphony, The Northwest Sinfonia, The Utah Film Orchestra, and the Prague Philharmonic.

The L.A. group is the most experienced and claims "the best players in the world." But they were the most expensive, even with the new AFM agreement negotiated by G.A.N.G. My recording budget would have disappeared all too quickly. Scratch.

The Prague Philharmonic was the least expensive. I could have recorded there all day every day for weeks. But to my ears, their performances come off sounding sharp, and their recorded sound has a brittle edge that I find aesthetically unappealing. Scratch.

That left Seattle and Salt Lake City. Seattle's musician-per-hour rate is $55. Salt Lake's is $50. Seattle's Bastyr Church and Studio X are both more expensive than Salt Lake's L.A. East Chapel, which goes for $125 an hour. Both orchestras have tons of experience recording for media. Both groups have their share of good and bad stories to be told. I had recorded in Salt Lake City previously with good results, so in the end I went with the cost savings and experience. I chose Salt Lake City.

Nothing focuses your attention quite like hundreds of dollars falling into the abyss every minute a large group of musicians is in the studio. And yet, nothing gives such a sick feeling as missing an ever so slightly out-of-tune phrase that could have been fixed with one more take. That is why producing a live recording is such a balancing act. On one side you have aesthetics: timing, tuning, dynamics, all those elusive ingredients that make emotive magic. On the other side there's the budget: there is only so much money, and if you go over in one area, you generally must cut somewhere else. Under the incredible pressure of the moment, making those decisions well is the key to effective live orchestral production.


The Orchestra

These recordings would be used in current and future games, so I isolated and recorded the orchestra one section at a time - strings, brass, and then woodwinds. This approach yielded undiluted sectional "stems" which would work flexibly in any number of future arrangements, offering each game a chance to use the high-quality live recordings we made within the context of infinitely varied compositions. It maximized quality and flexibility in one fell swoop. We started with the strings.

We didn't exactly get off to a smooth start. Version incompatibility between my Windows XP drives and the studio's Windows ME drives made it impossible to transfer my guide tracks. While the studio scrambled to find a fix, the orchestra grew restless. An outburst by a prominent member of the orchestra only added to the building tension. As we waited on the tech team, I watched the dollars slip into the chasm, and my blood pressure began to rise.

The control room finally called down with an interim solution. I rose to the podium and took a moment to gauge the atmosphere of the room. The players were unfocused, uneasy, and some seemed antagonistic. I was outwardly calm but totally rattled on the inside. This was no way to start a session, especially for my Lord of the Rings score. So I did something I had never done in a session before. I announced to the orchestra that I was going to pray, and before they could protest I bowed my head and started talking loud enough for everyone to hear. I gave thanks for everyone's talents and professionalism, I gave thanks for the rare privilege we had of making music for a living, and I asked for help in capturing a performance that would live up to the lofty standard of the literature. I said, "Amen," picked up my baton, and started describing the story behind the first piece. Interestingly, those sessions gave us some of the best tracks I've ever recorded.

The Choir

In contrast to the orchestra, which benefited from some "divine intervention," the choir was a hit right from the start. I contracted an ensemble of singers, most of whom perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and they far surpassed my expectations. Here are a few moments from our sessions together.

  • The Rise and Fall of Sauron. For Sauron's theme, we took the inscription from the Ring of Power - "Ash nazg durbatuluk, Ash nazg gimbatul, Ash nazg thrakatuluk agh burzum, Ishi krimpatuland" - and set it to music. This is sung twice in Sauron's theme, once with men only singing in a profoundly low octave, and the second time with full choir, including sopranos wailing on the top end. The singers were just way too good at this. I said to them, "What's your choir director going to say when you tell him you've been singing the Black Speech of Mordor?"

  • The Song of the Dwarves. When we started this piece, the singing was exceptional, but the feel of the caverns and the monotonous labor of the Dwarves was just not coming through. I asked the men's choir to march in place, and to sway from side to side for the next take, and their singing was totally altered. It was uncanny. As Tolkien videographer John Pratt later wrote: "To my amazement, simply excellent singing was transformed into the grandeur of generations of tireless hammers echoing into songs of celebration in the finished halls of Khazad-dûm!" A live producer needs lots of tricks up his sleeve.

The Ancient Instruments

Rare, antique acoustic instruments bring an ancient flavor and feeling to a game that nothing else in the world can. In truth, the sounds of these instruments are the only game elements that actually do come from another place and time. Getting some of these instruments into our Lord of the Rings recordings was essential.

Ferreting out ancient instruments in the 21st century is an adventure game all by itself. You can wander unsuccessfully for days and still come up empty-handed. I was lucky to find Gael Schults, an ancient Celtic music enthusiast who knew just about everyone in the world of archaic instruments. She provided two of the instruments herself and put me in touch with several other great players. Some of the specialty instruments we used in recording our themes and songs included the hurdy-gurdy, viola di gamba, psaltry, penny whistle, recorder, mandolin, rebec, dulcimer, and even an arch lute (also know as a theorbo).

Getting in the Game

With the recordings completed, it was time to get the music into the hands of the developers and into our games. This process had great potential to fall apart, since all the developers had adifferent composer signed on for their individual game score. But our music design was developed for this precise circumstance, and it actually held up remarkably well through the first round of scoring. Let's examine some of the specifics.

After bringing all the music tracks back to my Yosemite studio in five massive Pro Tools sessions, I started carving out the music cues. By way of explanation, music cues are game-useful segments of music that underscore a particular mood or game state, and are ready for implementation as a digital audio file. Every racial overture was broken down into five to ten such cues of the full orchestration, each lasting from 30 seconds to two minutes. I now had close to 35 usable cues from the main themes for all our developers.

Next, I went to work creating variations on these cues with different mixes. One section from "The Overture of Men" is instructive. From the movement entitled "The Life and Love of Men," I was also able to derive a brass-only mix, a harp and flute mix, a strings-only mix, a woodwinds-only mix, and a strings and woodwinds mix. Each sounds remarkably different and conveys a unique atmosphere. Thus each is useful for a different scoring purpose. Suddenly the number of usable music cues was approaching 100.

I uploaded all of these music cues to VUG's FTP site and made them available to the developers. I also uploaded the original MIDI files and sectional stems, and I sent each developer an asset list with recommendations for using them. A personal visit with each composer followed, offering further instruction, encouragement, and clarification. A brief summary of the development of three LOTR scores will show how it all came together.

War of the Ring. Composer Lennie Moore and the team at Liquid Entertainment have taken full advantage of every aspect of our design. Lennie used the MIDI files as a starting point for 75 to 80 percent of his compositions. He generally began by quoting one of the themes, working into a variation of the theme, then going off into a completely original idea. In producing the score, he made generous use of the choir stems, especially the phrases sung in Sauron's Black Speech. Each of the sectional stems has been utilized to add texture and definition to the score, and even the solo fiddle from "The Overture of Men" is mixed into one of his pieces. In addition, extra brass, pipes, voices, and Irish whistle sessions were contracted to record fresh material and some wild variations on Sauron's theme. Finally, music cues from the main themes were used under the movies and underscore some of the key game events and transitions. The result is an artfully complete score that is perfectly in harmony with the music style guide, sings the main themes with clarity and variety, and creates a unique identity for War of the Ring within the body of Tolkien music.

Treason of Isengard. This game was cancelled, but that too can be instructive. Composer Brad Spear and the team at Surreal Software took a more selective approach with our design. Brad used the MIDI files generously but was more crafty in his quotes and quicker to move into variation and onto his own material. The Treason score did not include any of the stems or music cues. Nevertheless, it adhered faithfully to the Tolkien Music Style Guide and quoted from the main themes reasonably enough to establish it as a VUG Tolkien game score.

Middle-Earth Online. Instead of relying on MIDI files like the previous two games, developer Turbine Entertainment and composer Geoff Scott prefer sprinkling the game world with the ready-made music cues pulled from the main themes. These fully produced theme segments are perfect for an MMO, and Middle-Earth Online is taking full advantage of them. As of this writing, there are at least 90 different cues that have been identified for implementation in the game. This abundant thematic foundation allows Geoff to concentrate on creating source music and specialty tunes for the game. In addition, he has contracted additional recordings on lute, solo woodwinds, and guitars, quoting some of the main themes by ear and offering grassroots variations for the score.

An Epic Journey

Great literature is a wonderful catalyst for the imagination, and very few works of literature inspire better than The Lord of the Rings. With our authoritatively documented Tolkien Music Style Guide, meticulously produced main themes, and successful franchise music design, each game score orbits tightly around an authentic Tolkien center, while offering its own unique adaptation and interpretation of the material. The result is a desirable union of individuality and continuity.

I am grateful for the chance given to write music from such a brilliant font of inspiration. In deference to LOTR fans I have been as thorough, scholarly, and authoritative as possible in adapting these works for music, and so have the various composers who have worked with me. I hope fans will find each game score evocative, authentic, of award-winning quality, and ultimately irresistible. In addition to the music cues available at www.gdmag.com, many of the examples I've discussed, plus video footage from the recording sessions and interviews with the creative team are available at www.LOTR.com, where VUG has built a web hub dedicated to our Lord of the Rings music.


Sidebar: Peeking Through the Lens of Videographer John Pratt

[Editor's note: this sidebar was written by John Pratt, a videographer who accompanied Chance Thomas during the recording sessions for The Lord of the Rings and captured the experience on video.]

Vivendi Universal was interested in getting some documentary footage for the Lord of the Rings game development project, and contracted me to do the job. A novel could be written about the week Chance recorded the master themes for the Lord of the Rings game series for Vivendi-Universal, but here are some highlights of our adventure.

To begin, when I arrived at the recording studio, I immediately sensed something was wrong. I set up the camera overlooking the orchestra, but Chance was spending most of his time talking to the control room, so I grabbed a little camera, and followed him back into the control room when he left the orchestra. Apparently, Chance had brought all the MIDI tracks and some of the scoring data on removable hard drives, as he had agreed to do in advance. But nobody realized that moving to a new operating system in Chance's home studio was going to send things to Mordor. His drives were in a Windows XP-compatible format, but the studio had only Windows 98 and ME machines, and they would not read Chance's drives.

Even though Chance didn't come unglued, it was very tense. I jumped on my cell phone and called a friend to beg him rush a Windows XP computer over to us. When the machine arrived, we transferred Chance's many gigs of hard drive data to the new PC. We then found out that the studio didn't have Mac OS X yet, so I had to run to my office to grab another Mac to go cross-platform with the data. Somehow, through sheer faith and talent, Chance got through the first session with good results while the computer nightmare was being fought.

An orchestra is an expensive group of people to have sitting around waiting, but Chance remained calm -- impressive given that he had been sleeping very little for several weeks, with thousands of dollars ticking away by the hour and five more days of recording to go. While the orchestra sat there racking up a big tab, Glen Neibaur, the head engineer, was making a sync track from temp tracks that Chance had brought on a separate CD. The sync track wasn't ideal, but enough for timing.

After we got all of Chance's MIDI and Pro Tools session information uploaded to Glen, the feel of individual instruments and sections were easier to focus on. Before each section was recorded, Chance gave the musicians a quick background describing the Tolkien race and events that were being depicted. I think the time he invested paid off in a huge way, because of the heart and soul that the musicians put into the work afterwards.

The vocal choir was predominantly composed of members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and their first order of business was to make a big change from their normal religious work with uplifting anthems, to creeping us out wailing incantations in the Black Speech of Sauron. Plenty of jokes went back and forth about having to repent after the recording session, but I think they got a real kick out of doing some difficult and eerie dissonance for a change. They pulled it off so well your hair will stand on end.

The string section then got to hear the choir's work on the Sauron theme while they were playing their difficult part of the theme. They came alive, and actually started to ask Chance for permission to do additional takes, because they felt they could do better on certain sections (and they were good to start with).

For the Dwarves' theme, Chance had the men's choir actually march in place side-to-side while they were singing, because the feel of the caverns and the monotonous work and labor of the Dwarves was not coming through. To my amazement, simply excellent singing was transformed into the grandeur of generations of tireless hammers echoing into songs of celebration in the finished halls of Khazad Dum. The underlying themes and passions of Tolkien's races started to come alive to me in ways I never imagined.

After recording choirs and orchestras, Chance and I drove about an hour south of Salt Lake City to Steve Lerud's Lakeside Studios to record solo instruments. Chance never got a break, and slept less than two hours a night for the whole week. He would hand-write notes and inflections for each musician all night after recording sessions. There was a stack six inches high of sheet music that he went through in one week, maybe more. The talented crew at LA East told me that other composers have teams of assistants working on arrangements, but that Chance does it all himself. This was a labor of love, in the way that Tolkien wrote.

Chance did not let his exhaustion in any way slow him down, and several musicians let me know that Chance's scores are some of the most difficult they had ever played in years of recording Hollywood soundtracks. There were long days of take after take.

With 110 hours of battle in 5 days behind us, it was time to mix the final stereo tracks. As the "Overture of Men" in its first draft came charging over the Tannoys in the control room, I found myself standing with Eomer, before the fallen Theoden, looking at the black wave of orcs pouring over the Pelennor Fields surrounding Minas Tirith. My despair urged me to run for the forests and hide in cowardice, but I took up my sword, and with the blare of horns all around me I heard the voice of Eomer rising above the din of battle “RIDE NOW FOR WRATH, RIDE NOW FOR RUIN!” and I remembered that all men die, but that we make our name in the way that we live and fight! As the black ships sailed up the great river, bringing the enemy reinforcements, our cold anger turned to joy and shouting, as Aragorn’s black flag unfurled high, and the uncrowned King of Gondor leapt from the ships into the hordes of screaming orcs. Our kin had come through the Paths of the Dead beyond hope to turn the day for the future of Men!

In recording, as in battle, there is so much more sweat, defeat and suffering, than triumph and celebration. Nobody wants to remember how hard it was, and how impossible the victory seemed in the distant and uncertain future. Recording video and audio to make Themes worthy of Tolkien’s work turned into a literal battle against the odds. As I stood in the control room fighting the tears of emotion, I saw the scenes of conflict and compromise in the Lord of the Rings wash over me, as years of reading the series culminated in an unfolding aural vision of the future of the race of men. It was a triumphant ending! A glorious finale!





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About the Author(s)

Chance Thomas


Chance Thomas creates music scores of superb quality. His projects have been honored by the Oscars, Emmys, Tellys, and many other industry awards. His proven approach balances the range, richness, and drama of a live film orchestra with rare acoustic instruments and human voices. Electronic elements add supporting layers of intensity and distinctiveness to his sound. Chance is widely recognized as an advocate for excellence in game music, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Game Audio Network Guild (GANG).

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